By Joel Francis
The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) Did you ever stop to think that maybe the biggest difference between country and rock and roll is marketing? I’m not saying fans of Sleep or Deafhaven are likely to warm up to Garth Brooks, or vice versa, but music is littered with crossover artists, from Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to Aaron Lewis and Darius Rucker. Elvis Presley may have started the trend, debuting on Sun Records with music that was equal parts rock, country and blues. In the post-monoculture landscape where streaming reigns supreme, genre distinctions mean even less. Bret Michaels, Jon Bon Jovi and Lionel Richie can tour as country artists while performers who started in the country bucket like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood can move seamlessly into being pop stars. And honestly, what is the difference between Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert? Or Kid Rock and herpes? Sorry, that was a low blow, but I couldn’t resist.
I bring all this up, because in 1968 these distinctions were a very big deal. The Byrds upset a lot of people when they performed on the Grand Ole Opry. Their hippie hair was too long for the Nashville crowd and their music too twangy for the hippies. The group was banned from the Opry when they dared to deviate from the prearranged setlist. Oh, the humanity! Instead, the band nearly broke up, with new recruit Gram Parsons leaving first. Bass player Chris Hillman and drummer Kevin Kelley, another short-timer left at the end of the year, with Hillman joining up with Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. As usual, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn was left to pick up the pieces and assemble another formation of the Byrds. McGuinn’s group released another six albums before packing it in. None approach the influence of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons and Hillman used Sweetheart as a stepping stone, building a musical empire that spawned not only mainstream successes like Eagles and the outlaw country movement. That legacy is still obvious today in the music of Lucinda Williams, Sturgil Simpson and the Highwomen.
Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006) The prolific Wu-Tang Clan MC Ghostface Killah drops so many albums, pseudo-albums/mixtapes and collaborations it can be daunting to separate the wheat from the chaff. Fishscale, Ghostface’s fifth album is a gritty masterpiece. Ghostface has an amazing eye for detail, making ever scenario across the album crackle to life like a short film or story. Production from Doom, Just Blaze, Pete Rock and J Dilla make the songs both accessible and memorable. Vignettes about drug deals, street life and women blur together to create a cinematic 65-minute arc. Check out the image this paints from the song “Kilo”: “A hundred birds go out, looking like textbooks/When they wrapped and stuffed/Four days later straight cash, two million bucks.” Or this childhood memory from “Whip You With a Strap”: “(T)hen came Darryl Mack lightin’ all the reefer up/Baby caught a contact, I’m trying to tie my sneaker up/I’m missing all the loops, strings going in the wrong holes/It feels like I’m wobbling, look at all these afros.”
Someone once said that Bruce Springsteen songs don’t begin and end as much as they zoom in a focus on a story, then gradually fade back out. Ghostface’s storytelling is easily on that same level for Fishscale. Along the way, the gets help from several members from the Wu-Tang Clan. The entire Clan assembles for “9 Milli Bros” and Ne-Yo pops by to sing the hook on “Back Like That,” a Top 20 Hot R&B hit. Even with these assists, Fishscale is Ghostface’s triumph and should be part of every hip hop library.
Batfangs – self-titled (2018) The women in Batfang live in a universe where Van Halen and Def Leppard are indie rock icons. The nine songs on the duo’s debut album, all written by singer/guitarist Betsy Wright, with some help from drummer Laura King, pay tribute to the 1980s hair band anthems that continue to provide atmosphere in Trams Ams and strip clubs today. At just 25 minutes, Batfangs know how to love ‘em and leave ‘em. Two years on, I’m hoping their album wasn’t just a one-night stand.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984) It’s hard to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan gifted fans with three studio albums and a live record – the majority of his catalog – in less time than a presidential term. Couldn’t Stand the Weather was Double Trouble’s second album and if it feels like a disappointment after their debut Texas Flood, it is only because Texas Flood claimed so much territory. Lightning-fast guitar heroics can only be a surprise one time. After that, they are expected.
Vaughan didn’t write many songs for this album, but the ones he did are gems. The white hot instrumental “Scuttle Buttin’” sets up the title song, another original, nicely. Vaughan also wrote the last two songs on the album. “Stag’s Swang,” the last number, shows off another tool in Vaughan’s formidable arsenal – jazz guitar.
The four covers are all spectacular. Vaughan owns Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The slow blues “Tin Pan Alley” couldn’t be more different from the Hendrix cover, but Vaughan is right at home there, too. “Cold Shot” was released as a single and became a Top 40 rock radio hit.
Couldn’t Stand the Weather clocks in at eight tracks and slightly less than 40 minutes. This might make the Weather seem slight in the shadow of Texas Flood, but it remains an indispensable chapter in the book of a consummate blues man that ended way too early.